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Oscar – and Latin Flair - is in the air at Santa Barbara

Oscar – and Latin Flair - is in the air at Santa Barbara

This year’s Santa Barbara Film Festival feels like an Academy Awards kick-off party thanks to appearances by directors, producers and screenwriters associated with Oscar hopefuls from Lord of the Rings to Monster.

SBIFF unspooled Friday night with a screening of Argentina’s official Academy Award foreign language submission Valentin. Alejandro Agresti’s comedy, about a little boy who yearns for a mother, did not make it to the Oscar shortlist, but it aptly captured the prominence of Latin film in this year’s festival (January 31 – February 8).

Festivities continued Saturday night at the historic Arlington Theater when Academy Award nominee – and favorite – Peter Jackson picked up the festival’s Modern Master Award. Actor Sean Astin presented the Lord of the Rings: Return of the King helmer with the award before a sold-out crowd. In addition to a gleaming trophy, SBIFF paid tribute to Jackson’s New Zealand roots by presenting him with a stuffed kiwi, the country’s national bird.

Rings’ screenwriters and Oscar nominees Phillippa Boyes and Fran Walsh, were also in town on Saturday to take part in the first of SBIFF’s seven power-packed panel discussions. They joined fellow screenwriting nominees Jim Sheridan (In America), Gary Ross (Seabiscuit), as well as 21 Grams’ Guillermo Arriaga and Big Fish’s John August to discuss the screenwriting process.

Yet another Saturday panel featured directors Patty Jenkins, Monster; Anthony Minghella, Cold Mountain and Gary Ross, Seabiscuit, among other high-profile directors. Producers and studio executives, documentary filmmakers and women in Hollywood will take part in panels throughout the rest of the festival.

First-time festival director Roger Durling, a local playwright, café-owner and columnist, is credited with drawing a long list of heavyweights to this year’s event. The native Panamanian is also responsible for infusing the festival’s lineup with a Latin flair.

Ten films from the Latin-speaking world are up for competition in the Spanish and Latin American category, but additional films from the Spanish-speaking world are liberally sprinkled throughout the festival’s ten categories and six side bars. American Independents, for example, includes, Juan Gerard’s coming of age tale Cuba Libre. The Documentary competition includes Lorenzo Destefano’s Los Zafiros: Music from the Edge of Time, about a music movement in Cuba. And the Special Screenings category features the U.S. premiere of Victoria Clay-Mendoza’s Maletilla, a documentary about bullfighting.

Films from Europe, Australia and Canada that have racked up accolades at previous festivals are also heavily featured. Only two of the Academy Award foreign language nominees made it into the lineup, however. Ben Sombogaart’s Twin Sisters, from the Netherlands and Denys Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions are featured in the World Cinema category.

Fittingly, one of the festival’s most talked-about films – Lars van Trier’s Dogville, in the Special Section category – is destined to appear on next year’s Oscar list

Susan Buzzelli

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